In 1789, Shropshire solicitor Thomas Phipps, his son Thomas Jnr and their clerk, 16-year-old William Thomas, went on trial at Shrewsbury Assizes for the capital offence of forgery.
The victim was a Richard Coleman, once an excise officer and now an Oswestry publican. Phipps senior had leased two parcels of land to William Howell, a local butcher, who subsequently sub-let them to Coleman at a rent of £20 per annum. Coleman would graze one parcel of land and cut and stack the hay on the other for Phipps.
However, when in 1788 Phipps returned from business in London he found Coleman had cut and taken away the hay on both bits of land.
By Christmas 1788, Phipps Jnr served a writ on Coleman, demanding an exorbitant £32 for the hay. Coleman refused to pay but on 7 March 1789 the Phipps announced that Coleman had signed a note for £20 in satisfaction of the trespass of taking the hay. It was witnessed by Phipps father and son and their clerk. Coleman claimed the note was a forgery and a warrant was issued for the arrest of all three.
The father and son were found in a cellar, armed with a brace of loaded pistols. Thomas Phipps surrendered. Phipps Jnr escaped but was later arrested.
The case was fairly clear cut. Witnesses swore the handwriting on the note was not Coleman’s and books were produced from his excise days showing his signature was different. William Thomas gave evidence that he had not seen Coleman sign the note. The jury took 20 minutes to find the Phipps guilty, recommending mercy for the son. This did not please the judge who said he considered the son to be the more guilty. Thomas was acquitted.
On the morning of their execution young Phipps confessed, saying his father was ignorant of the note being forged. Too late. In the coach on the way to the gallows, Phipps Snr is said to have forgiven his son, adding reproachfully, ‘Tommy, thou hast brought me to this shameful end’.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor